Anxious about returning to work? Support your mental health as restrictions ease

Eugene Farrell
Eugene FarrellMental health lead for AXA Health

For many, the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions is a cause of celebration, but others may find readjusting hard for their mental health. Eugene Farrell of AXA Health gives advice on supporting your team through the changes of the coming months.

Professional working from home at laptop

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will have an impact on the mental health of some of us for years to come.

You may well have become accustomed to working from home (WFH) and feel anxious about returning to an office environment.

Perhaps you are dreading the thought of returning to your long commute?

Safeguarding your mental health

As lockdown restrictions are relaxed from this week in England, how can you safeguard your mental health going forward, and support the long-term mental health of your team?

1. Take it slowly

Some people can cope with change better than others.

After WFH for a year, it may come as a bit of a culture shock to some of your team once they’re asked to return to the office.

You could consider a phased return to the office for your team, whereby they’re still able to WFH for a couple of days a week, for example.

2. Acknowledge anxiety and be flexible

It’s an anxious time for many of us right now, so remain positive and optimistic about the future.

For some, the anxiety may be overwhelming or lead to distress. Be understanding and flexible – ask them what they feel comfortable doing as a first step; you can build upon things over days or weeks.

A later commute, for example, might help alleviate any anxiety over travelling on public transport.

Recognise that some of your team may not want to ever return to an office environment, so accommodate this, if possible.

You may find that some of your team would prefer to maintain a more flexible working structure going forwards.

While some people may be excited by the prospect of returning to the office, others may be enjoying the new work-life balance they’ve discovered during lockdown.

They may request flexible working on a permanent basis, whether that be different working hours or continued remote working.

Being open to these changes can help to make your team feel more comfortable about their future working arrangements.

Information helps too – communicate your plans early, with as much detail as you can. Acknowledge it may not be perfect and more changes might happen as things develop.

Create upward communication so that people feel heard, perhaps through firm-wide briefings or ‘town halls’ – avoid just sending an e-mail communicating your plans, if you can.

3. Establish a routine

Routines give us a sense of normality. This may mean different things to different people. It could mean:

  • keeping your usual lunch break blocked out in your calendar
  • your daily walk to get some fresh air and exercise
  • your regular 11am tea and catch-up with your colleagues (if restrictions allow)

4. Maintain positive emotional connections with others

You’ve likely dedicated a lot of time and effort to ensuring that your team feel supported while you’ve been working remotely.

Once you all start returning to the office, it’s important to maintain these relationships.

Your team may need even more support now that they are adapting to office working again, so ensuring that you have regular catch-ups can help for a more comfortable transition.

5. Engage in healthy behaviours

When returning to the office, it can be easy to return to some old negative behaviours, such as skipping your lunch break or staying in the office until late.

However, it’s important to maintain those healthy behaviours that we may have developed while working from home:

  • exercise
  • rest
  • sleep
  • eating well
  • relaxation

This could be doing yoga after work, not checking your emails in the evenings or weekends, or eating healthier lunches.

Continuing support post-21 June

While restrictions are scheduled to be entirely lifted on 21 June, it’s almost certain that remote working is here to stay, and we won’t be seeing as much of our colleagues as we did pre-pandemic.

Below are some tips on how to continue supporting the mental health of your team while working remotely.

1. Read the mood of your team

Be aware of negative mood change in your team.

It’s completely normal for people to experience mood changes during periods of significant change.

Tuning in to the mood of your team and looking out for signs of negative mood change, such as not engaging, being withdrawn or loss of humour can help you to adapt your communication and provide the appropriate level of support.

It’s important to always remain positive and detached, putting your emotions and judgement to one side.

Try to help with the issue where you can. It may be more useful to help them with their reactions right now, and deal with the resolution later.

“Act, don’t react” is a good mantra.

2. Listen

Some members of your team may feel comfortable talking openly about their feelings.

However, others may tend to keep their emotions bottled up and try to deal with things themselves.

Be alert and listen out for signs of distress or struggle in the things that they say and in their tone.

This may appear as initial reluctancy:

  • they may not be clear in what they want to say
  • their voice may waver
  • they may avoid eye contact

Sometimes, people blink more often or blink several times in one go. Breathing may become deeper, more rapid, or shallow and slow.

3. Look out for behaviour changes

Is a team member replying to emails in the middle of the night?

Have you noticed on a conference call that an upbeat team member is unusually quiet and upset?

This may indicate that they’re struggling and may need additional support.

4. Use your instinct

When you work with your team every day, you get to know them.

You should therefore trust your instincts – if someone doesn’t seem quite right, have an honest conversation with them to find out if there’s anything you can do to help.

Ask them how they are feeling – they may well say “OK” – but go on to identify what you have noticed. For example: “I’ve noticed you have not been your usual self lately: you seem a little distant. Is something bothering you?”

Listen actively and pay full attention. Allow them time to speak and don’t worry about filling any silences. Sometimes people need time to think or to get it out.

Summarise so that you understand, and that they know you heard them. If something isn’t clear, then clarify with a question – make sure you don’t make any assumptions.

5. Promote any available support

If you provide support services for your team, ensure they know how to access them should they need it and that they’re clearly signposted.

AXA Health business health insurance

The Law Society is pleased to introduce AXA Health for your business healthcare cover.

At AXA Health, our Employee Assistance Programme means you and your team can get help with the things that are affecting you right from the start – before they start to impact your wellbeing and productivity.

Whether it’s a family break up, financial concerns or you’re struggling with the stresses of work, you can rest assured that you and your team will have someone to talk to confidentially by phone – 24/7, 365 days a year.

Find out more about our Employee Assistance Programme

Plus, our Mental Health cover option can further help to show your business commitment to supporting mental health, whether your team needs:

  • counselling
  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or
  • psychiatric treatment in a private hospital

Our Stronger Minds* service (available with our Mental Health cover option) also means that your team won’t need a GP referral in order to access support.

They can simply call our Stronger Minds team for a phone assessment with a trained expert who can guide them to the right support or refer them to see a specialist.

Cover is subject to terms and conditions and dependant on the underwriting terms you choose.

Groups of 1-2 employees will need to include either our Treatment option or our Diagnostic Only option when purchasing our Mental Health option. Groups of 3+ employees can purchase our Mental Health option standalone.

Find out more about our Mental Health cover option, including what is and isn’t covered, and get a quote today.

*The Stronger Minds service is only available to members aged 18 and over.

The Law Society is an introducer appointed representative of AXA PPP healthcare Limited.

AXA Health is a trading name of AXA PPP healthcare Limited, authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. The private healthcare insurance plans are underwritten by AXA PPP healthcare Limited. Registered office 20 Gracechurch Street, London EC3V 0BG. Registered in England and Wales number 3148119. Write to us at: AXA Health, Phillips House, Crescent Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 2PL. For information about AXA Health, visit axahealth.co.uk/aboutaxahealth.

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